Fein in Treviso
Claude was waiting for us outside the trattoria, just as he had promised
when he suggested we drive up from Rome and spend a few days in Treviso. There he was with two newspapers, lounging at a table underneath the inevitable Cinzano umbrella.
“Oh, come,” he’d said. “It’ll be a kick to see you and Maya and you could show her Tuscany on the way. Come on Tuesday or Wednesday. Norah and I are a little cramped, I’m afraid, but I’ll arrange for you to stay at this sweet pensione. It’s right in the middle of town. We can rendezvous in the piazza. Trattoria Pontini. It’s right next to the Palazzo—a bit to the left, like me. Can’t miss it. I generally settle in from two to four.” Maya, who had been bored in Rome and was no more eager to return home than I, leapt at the prospect of a road trip. “Oh, Daddy, rent one of those cute Italian cars.” We took our time, leaving the autostrada for stops in Florence, Assisi, and Modena. By the time we got to Verona, Maya refused to go into any more churches or museums. “Mothers and babies, mothers and babies,” she whined.
Treviso is small, feels hospitable, and all roads lead to the Piazza. We parked at one end of the square which was dominated by the ponderous Romanesque Palazzo dei Trecento. Maya spotted the Trattoria Pontini at once.
Claude wore a linen jacket draped over his shoulders, Italian style, and loose white trousers. His hair was
much longer than I remembered, still smooth and black. He parted it high on the left so it fell over the right half of his face in a way that looked nearly natural and almost concealed his receding hairline. He looked as if he’d modeled himself on Marcello Mastroianni in La Dolce Vita. He was clean shaven. In our student days, he’d
always appeared as if he’d forgotten to shave for three or four days. “It’s a look,” he’d explained to me with that mock-earnestness of his. “You know, too caught up in work to bother—or too dissipated.” Did any other college freshmen use the word “dissipated,” speak French laced with Italian—or vice versa—know all about the market in Leger lithographs, quote The Magic Mountain in German, reproduce entire Lenny Bruce monologues, or break into tap dances in the Quad? Could any others produce a cheese soufflé on a hot
He rose to greet us, wrapped his arms around Maya, and lifted her high into the air, which, to my surprise, she
I noticed he was sporting a pair of tan slip-on, sans socks. When we were freshmen he’d taken me into Macy’s and bought a pair of lace-ups of the kind I associated with London bank managers. Florsheim’s price floored me.
“Never ever skimp on shoes,” he’d said as if he knew very well I would skimp but also that I’d never ever forget his advice not to.
Claude Kaplan had gone off to Europe in 1970 around the time of the invasions of Cambodia and Laos, though for personal rather than political reasons. His first marriage to Phyllis—Philly—had ended with his losing custody
of their two children and half of his trust fund.
It was in our junior year that Philly claimed to have become pregnant and Claude had been delighted to marry her, even when the pregnancy evaporated. He had discovered a yearning for domesticity. “Solves the whole sex issue and, besides, you know how I love to cook,” he explained when he invited me to the City Hall wedding and the post-nuptial feast at the Capital Grille. “I’m buying Philly and me a condo. Finally I’ll have a proper kitchen.” Philly liked being married too, just not to Claude whom she saw as a man spoiled by too much money who would never do anything but indulge himself and others. When she called me a few years later maybe out of some self-justifying impulse, or because she felt I was somehow owed an explanation, I tried to explain that it wasn’t the money that paralyzed her husband but guilt over being adopted by a Chicago heiress and raised according to her mood swings. Stop that stuttering or I’ll nail your tongue to a board,” he’d told me his right-wing grandmother once threatened during a family dinner. He still suffered from the stutter. His mother had sent him to a shrink when he was only six, the kind who makes things worse. One morning during our sophomore year his adopted father, a stockbroker, walked in front of a commuter train. His mother tried pills three times before, perhaps owing to miscalculation, she took enough of them. “Well,” Philly said in a hard-edged voice, “I’m not going to save him and I’m sure as hell not going to see my kids ruined.”
Claude phoned me after the decree came down and said he wanted out, that he was leaving the country, but would keep in touch. “Thought I’d take a ship, do it the old-fashioned way, the way our forbears made the move, but in luxury and in reverse.” On the trip over he met Norah, or entangled him. Claude was a sophisticate in all respects except with women. He suffered from the unfortunate combination of acute shyness and irresistible libido. When I met Norah I was struck by how much she looked like Philly—his type was tall and
blonde—but she was less courteous and more mercenary.
My own marriage blew up the same week the Diptych came out. My wife left a note for me, wished me well, said she didn’t want any money, that she’d just made other plans. These didn’t include Maya. She preferred liberation to custody. When I was invited to speak at a conference in Rome in June I decided to accept and took Maya with me. Like Claude, I wanted out, at least for a little while. I had Claude’s address in Venice and sent him a copy of the book. It followed him to Treviso where he’d settled in for the summer and the last act of marriage number two. He phoned to congratulate me on the book and, when I mentioned Maya and I would be in Rome, he invited us to visit.
Claude put Maya down but held on to her hand and smooched it so theatrically that she giggled. “Signorina Maya e molto bella! Parla Lei inglese?”
Maya took back her hand and proudly retorted with one of the half-dozen sentences she’d memorized on the plane. “Lo dica in inglese, per favore.”
Claude and I laughed and Maya looked jollier than I’d seen her in a year. She and Claude were clearly determined to charm one another.
We sat down. “So, do you sit here swilling espressos every afternoon?” I asked.
“Oh, every now and then a cappuccino.”
“Treviso was bombed in the war,” said Maya who had gone at the guide book methodically. “I read about it.”
Claude motioned widely. “Well, as you see, Signorina Maya, it’s all been cleaned up for you. I told them you’d be coming. It was all I could do to talk them out of a brass band.”
The piazza was filled with dazzling sunlight but the heat was dry and bearable. “Summer in Venice,” Claude had said, “is too hot even for Rimbaud.”
An ancient waiter reluctantly sauntered out of the shade to ask what we would have. I ordered a Coca-Cola
for Maya and an iced tea for myself.
“Where’s Norah?” I asked.
Claude shrugged indifferently. His indolence always pained me, made me think of the waste of his talents. He had been a good painter and a clever student when he bothered to pay attention. I had to wake him for his physics final by turning over his bed; he took the exam in his pajamas. After graduation he did two years in architecture school—Le Corbusier was, for a time, a religion with Claude—then, with a year to go, he dropped out. This was the last straw for Phyllis. Then he went into what I thought of as his Mr. Toad phase. He designed inflatable furniture, worked on a scheme for farming lobsters, started, then abandoned a book about currency collapses, collected early nineteenth-century reticules, then antique Caucasian rugs. He had introduced me to Debussy and Fragonard, to Handel and Mies van der Rohe, Heine and Gide, burgundy and Beaujolais. I also learned from him that the rich, like the poor, think about money almost all the time. Claude made me rejoice to be middle class, an ant to his grasshopper. If only he’d been poorer he could have achieved great things. Claude was my best friend from college days; so, even long after idolizing turned to deploring, he could always rely on my sympathy.
“Liked the book,” he said.
“You’re a lot smarter than I thought. Passed it on.”
“To a young American woman I ran into here--right here, in fact. She’s a bohemian, a semi-hippie, I guess, but very intelligent and so intense it’s scary. Pretty too. But not to worry. I’ve ordered another half-dozen copies of Diptych on Terrestrial Representation—it’s a mighty title, Dr. Fein. In German it could flatten a barn.”
“Nobody says ‘Doctor,’ Claude.”
“Over here they do. Italians adore titles. Dottore. Dottoressa, which I like even better.”
“Is the woman at our pensione a dottoressa?” asked Maya just because she was feeling neglected.
“Well, she ought to be. It’s because of her that I put you there. Signor Muscato is so happy you never seen the fellow at all. You’ve seen her so you know that Signora Muscato looks like Gina Lollobrigida but she also cooks like Julia Child.”
“Bon appétit!” cried Maya, who recognized the second name.
“Buon appetito,” Claude, with raised finger, teasingly corrected. “Now, how about a tour? Stretch the old legs. Not too road-weary are we, bella signorina?”
“Oh no,” said Maya con gusto and leapt up.
“You dropped off your bags at the pensione, yes?”
“At the desk. The room wasn’t quite ready.”
“Good, then off we go while the incomparable Signora Muscato lays on the finishing touches.”
We took a turn around the Piazza dei Signorini. “They light it up every night,” Claude confided to Maya, “like Christmas at Mulberry Street and Grand. It’s magnificent, you’ll see.” We strolled the Passegiata Lungo, then I Buranelli with its Venetian canal. “You can see we’re in the Veneto,” said Claude. Maya fell in love with the Isolotto della Pescheria, but was wilting all the same. “I guess I could do with a little nap at our pensione.”
She enjoyed saying the word pensione.
Claude sympathized. “Quelle pauvre petite.”
“I’m only seven,” she explained.
“Che? Sette? Gia! Impossibile!” cried Claude and performed a little salto of disbelief.
Before we separated Claude insisted we come to dinner.
“It’s a party and I’ll be doing the cooking, of course—supplying the wine too, so dress casually and bring big American appetites. You’ll be meeting that young woman I mentioned, the one who admires your book.”
“You didn’t actually say she’d read it.”
“Didn’t I? Well, apparently, she was bowled over by it. You’ll like her, I think, and her name too; it’s got three barrels. Leda Steinberg-Barrantes. A Greek Ashkenazy Mexican walking melting pot. Young, gifted, and named after a myth. What’s not to like? Oh, and there’ll be this Italian couple, the Parellas, pals of Norah’s. We owe them a supper. Otto runs the toniest schmatte shop in town and Luciana’s a clothes-horse. You can guess how
they met. They seem to despise each other in a co-dependent kind of way.”
Maya treated us to one of her baby hippo yawns.
“Signorina, are you by any happy chance partial to osso buco?”
We arrived at sunset. Claude and Norah inhabited half of an ancient building on one of Treviso’s canals. “Gutted and dolled up,” Claude commented as he showed us to the terrace at sunset, “like a carp in a Chinese restaurant. It’s comfortable. Everything new, except the walls—nice, thick ones they are too, cool as a
cathedral.” Then he made some zippy introductions and vanished.
The dinner was to be elaborate; Claude’s cuisine always was. He fussed over it in the kitchen and we scarcely saw him before it was ready. Norah was left to preside but was uninterested in the job. She gave me one smile and two minutes of perfunctory questions. She entirely ignored Maya, who was fidgety until I asked Norah if she could perhaps explore the apartment. Five minutes later Claude ducked his head out to say that, if nobody minded, Signorina Maya had graciously volunteered to act as sous-chef.
“See what I mean? He always does this to me,” complained Norah and resumed gossiping with her guests. Luciana Parella wore something in yellow chiffon and Otto stretched out a polo shirt. He directed asides to his wife under his breath and in rapid Italian, which she answered just as quickly in a serpentine sotto voce. It appeared they were having an argument in italiano piano, but they were nearly sycophantic to Norah in inglese
Leda arrived late, for which Norah chided her. The Parellas looked her up and down and hardly acknowledged her. She wore a T-shirt and jeans and looked about sixteen. She shrugged off her hostess’s reproaches and appropriated me at once.
“Oh, your book, your book,” she began in a high, breathless, Midwestern voice.
I waited for a predicate.
“I’m so excited to meet you. Really. You’re a kindred spirit, Mr. Fein.” She spoke ingenuously, sure that she could pay me no higher compliment.
Leda Steinberg-Barrentes’ eyes were large and the color of dark chocolate, her eyebrows almost black. Her long blonde hair was pulled up into some sort of braid that unraveled by stages through the evening. She was pretty, just as Claude said, but then I’ve always found the combination of dark eyebrows and light hair attractive.
Her face was that of a lost child who was too brave to care about being lost. She twisted in her seat, crossed and uncrossed her legs, rubbed her ankle, so restless that I wondered if she might be on something.
She had no small talk and recognized no boundaries.
“Claude says you’re a single parent now. Doesn’t that keep you from working? Do you ever resent your
daughter? Where is she, anyway? Do you miss being married or do you feel liberated? Couldn’t your wife
understand your work? Do you think sex is a trap—you know, nature getting what it wants by tricking us into
thinking we’re getting what we want? Your favorite director is Bergman? I knew it! Do you think a genius can sometimes be astoundingly stupid? I tried to read Heidegger but gave up. I suppose I can see why he became a Nazi in 1933—conformist imbecility, a career move even—but how could he stay one? I mean, did he confuse the Third Reich with the Ground of Being or something? You made a good point in your book when you said that people demand to be treated as subjects yet love being complimented as objects. Do you think that’s more true of women, though? I’d like to make a film about women-objects. . . maybe starring Signora Parella over there.”
I learned later from Claude that Leda was twenty-two, had run away from NYU’s film school with the son of a big-shot anti-war Quaker, himself an erstwhile graduate student. “I think she said his field was classics or it might have been the ancient near-east—anyway, Romans or Hittites. Apparently he translated things brilliantly.
Also he drank. She got away from him in Paris after he beat her up. Somehow she wound up in Treviso. Her family sends her money but not very much. It’s an act of charity to feed her body and her ego. She wants to make movies—oh, pardon me, not movies but experimental films. But I’m sure you know that.”
I did know because Leda had seated herself beside me at dinner and went on talking non-stop. Listening was
not her forte. By the time we got to the cassata torte I was pretty much worn out. Maya sat by Claude and threw me jealous looks. Norah and the Parellas drank a lot of wine and more or less ignored the rest of us. “Yes, Claude really is an obsessive cook,” she said when they complimented the meal.“I’m sure he’s sublimating something awful but, heaven knows, it’s not sex.”
I suppose being ignored by Norah made Maya think of her absent mother. She threw one of her tantrums that night, albeit a relative short one. I calmed her by reading to her from a book of Italian folk tales that all end with and from that time on they were always together and as happy as happy could be. I promised her that we’d go hiking when we got home and go to the amusement park. I reminded her that in August she’d be spending a week with her grandparents who were staying up late inventing up new ways to spoil her. She listened to all of this in clenched silence; and, after I’d kissed her good night, she looked at me with narrowed
eyes and, as she often does, said what was on her mind: “You made Mommy leave.”
We were late getting up the next morning and, when we came downstairs, the voluptuous Signora Muscato told me Claude had phoned and asked that I call him back.
“Look, I’m a dispossessed father in exile. How about letting me take Maya into Venice for the day? I’ll watch over her like the crown jewels. I mean, if she wants to, if you’re willing. Then maybe you could spend some time with Leda. I don’t know if she’s nuts about you or just nuts but last night she begged me to ask. ‘I absolutely have to talk to that man about my work.’ That’s what she said. Talk more about it, I guess. Did she use you all up during dinner?”
Maya leapt at the idea of a whole day in Venice with Claude, especially when I told her he’d promised a gondola ride up the Grand Canal. “Please, Daddy? Please?”
I gave in and spent the morning looking into shops. I bought a short leather jacket and a new pair of sunglasses for Maya—wildly reckless without her there to try them on. For myself, I picked up a magnifying glass with a mother-of-peal handle and an edition of Dante bound in calfskin and so old that it felt almost spongy.
Claude had suggested that Leda meet me at the Pontini at one, when I could buy her lunch. She was right on time and gave me an unexpected hug. She sat down and beamed at me while I smiled back stupidly. We decided on pizza but agreed it was disappointing, that real Italian pizza usually was.
“Imprinting,” she said.
“You know, like duckling. Your first pizza’s the standard against which all others are measured. Even if you should find one that’s better—objectively, I mean—your first one’s always going to be the best. For me, Rizzo’s on Homer Street.”
Leda was apodictic in her pronouncements, but they were interesting, and her gush of speech was inexhaustible, nearly manic. She told me she was taken with Marx’s cultural criticism rather than his economics or politics, like the phony revolutionaries she’d met in New York.
“Narrative’s absolute, of course, but the mode of delivery really is relative to the means of production and who controls them. A warrior aristocracy produces The Iliad for after-dinner entertainment, democracy the Oedipus
cycle and hard seats costing one drachma, an urban bourgeoisie books like Pamela, and the industrial age Gone With the Wind and Les Enfants du Paradis. Modes of production and distribution are useful in understanding forms of expression, but what interests me is what transcends them. For instance, the ambiguity of storytelling which is always collective and private at the same time. We sit in the theater with a hundred strangers and yet we’re all locked in our own chambers of imagery. That how Ezekiel puts it. Sure, I read the Bible. A director can learn a lot because bible stories are so marvelously concentrated, like freeze-dried coffee. You kind of have to add water. Anyway, what I fascinates me is how we’re connected through stories yet isolated by them. It isn’t limited to film or drama; the early novels were read out loud. All those edifying family stories of how young people make it to financial and marital security.The literate and the illiterate both crave narrative as much as vitamins and minerals. We all need to be read to, sung at, or to watch. Didn’t some scientist prove that if you can’t dream you’ll go mad? That’s so, isn’t that so? You said something like that in your book, didn’t you?”
After lunch she asked me to come to her apartment, a two-room affair in a squalid back street half a mile from the piazza. One room was taken up by a hot plate, a tiny refrigerator, two chairs, a card table, film equipment, and piles of books. The Diptych lay on top of one tottering stack; I wondered if it had been left there deliberately. The second room was wall-to-wall bed, plus a floor lamp with a purple cloth over it. The bed looked as if a soft roof had collapsed on it. It was strewn with satin pillows, rounds, squares, oblongs.
“I was going to show you one of the shorts I made in New York or Paris but now that you’re here I’m ashamed of them. Five-finger exercises, juvenilia. If it’s okay I’d rather just tell you about a couple of projects that are still in my mind. Big ones—bigger, at least. And then, if you like, we can go to bed. You’ve really got to be a little
I was stunned, maybe a little offended, but also amused. To Leda, sex was apparently just a thing you did, a way of collecting experience, a trip to the gym, a sight-seeing tour, a pastime, collecting. To her, I supposed, men were simple creatures who never said no. It occurred to me that Claude must have said yes. His act of charity was not so pure. Recalling how Norah had spoken to Leda, I realized and that she probably knew.
As a seductress, however, Leda was inept. I’m no prude, but I saw that she was indeed lost.
“Tell me about your projects,” I said gently and evasively. This was what she really wanted anyway, not a meaningless coupling.
“Okay. Pull up a chair. She sat down and we were knee to knee.
“The first is about Hansel and Gretel.”
“The fairy tale?”
“The Grimms’. It’s fascinated me since I was a child. I mean, there are the great details, the witch and her house and that oven, the chicken bone, the feckless father and the nasty stepmother, the clever, resourceful kids, the bread crumbs, the treasure. But the happy ending never made sense to me. There was something wrong. I really brooded over it. The grown-ups were no help; I mean, they just accepted it and laughed at my questions. So what I want to do is my own version. I want to make it, you know, realistic.”
“A realistic fairy tale?”
“Don’t be coy. You know very well how real fairy-tales are, how we never entirely outgrow them. They’re lodged in our psyches and become part of us. That’s what they’re supposed to do.They’re tools of socialization. Still, I always felt Hansel and Gretel had been cleaned-up, that it was, so to speak, an official
version of another story. A darker one.”
“Darker than abandoned children, cannibalism, a witch burned alive?”
“Yep, exactly. My film will begin with Gretel, Margarete, as a famous old woman on her deathbed, confessing
to an astonished priest what really happened. Most of the film will be a flashback.”
“So, what really happened?”
“It’s all about the stepmother, actually. In case you forgot, in the official version she’s just conveniently dead when the kids get home. No explanation given. Their father’s there but all we hear of the stepmother is that she’s kaput. The witch is dead and so’s the stepmother. Happy ending for the little ones.”
“You think they’re the same, then? Two versions of the bad and threatening ersatz mother?”
“That’s too clever by half. No. Not that.”
“The way I see it, when Hansel and Gretel get home their father’s out looking for them but the stepmother’s right there and, of course, anything but pleased to see them. Knowing her greed, they show her a little of the treasure and entice her to follow them to the witch’s house to fetch back the rest. You see, they’ve planned it all out, made notches on the trees through the forest and everything. So they take her back to the little house in the big forest.While she’s frantically searching the attic, the children lay wood and kindling in the oven, right on top of the old woman’s bones and ashes. Then they call to the stepmother, saying that the oven’s full of gold coins. She rushes down to the kitchen, shoves them out of the way, and sticks her head in the oven.
The kids push her in, light the kindling, lock the door, and run.”
“But that’s terrible.”
“There’s more,” Leda said quickly, caught up in her story. “The kids rush away, putting their hands over their ears to mute the sound of the woman’s screams.They rush home, find their father, and tell him everything.
He draws back in horror. The three of them agree on a story—what becomes the official version—and move to town where they buy the biggest house. The story circulates and the children are famous, heroes. Their father, terrified and subservient to his children, with nothing to do, no wood to cut, wastes away. Hansel takes his share of the loot and moves to Thuringia, buys up land, rises to the rank of Junker, and oppresses the peasants. Margarete devotes herself to good works; she establishes an orphanage. The only true thing about the official story—the one every child for miles around knows—was the old woman’s treasure. Margarete tells the priest the truth she’s come to understand. The witch was simply a lonely old woman, miserly but the kind who says to cute children that she could ‘just eat them up.’ She did offer them sweets and they really did believe she intended to eat them. She did ask them to stay with her and help with the house. And, of course, they really did kill her. But all that business about the cage and the chicken bone was fabricated. Margarete has spent her life trying to make amends. She tells the priest she prays every day for her brother’s soul and begs him to pray for hers. . . . So, you see? The real story’s about how poverty, hunger, unkind stepmothers and whipped fathers deform the souls of children. That’s what Gretel came to understand. What I have, anyhow.”
“What’ll you call it?”
“Johannes and Margarete, of course.” She frowned and added gloomily, “If I ever make it.” I suppose she would have liked me to declare that of course she would produce many films, that they’d be wonderful and make her famous. Don’t all spirited young people like to bask in assurances to match their yet-to-be-thwarted ambitions? Leda certainly shared her generation’s romantic attraction to the movies nor was she immune to the glamour of celebrity; yet I’m sure she promised herself never to do anything for the sake of popularity. Maya liked Disney’s vision and perhaps, at seven, so had Leda. But now she had taste and was determined to be original, worthy of her heroes, directors not actors. Leda was one of those who didn’t merely long to be an artist; she wanted to make art.
“Anything everyone praises, even if it is good, is already played out,” she said to me sternly. You quote
somebody in your book who said the one thing that can’t be imitated is the truth.”
“Yes, because then it ceases to be true. An old rabbi said that.”
She cocked her head like a sparrow and smiled. “Aren’t all rabbis old?”
I laughed. “Especially the young ones.”
That first and last joke of hers broke the tension I had been feeling ever since she had called me sex-starved and offered to do something about it. Instead of going to bed, we went for a walk and ended up back at the Isolotto della Pescheria which Maya had liked so much.
Islands can provoke fantasies of snugness, of being oneself an island, as in that dream I have of being a sick child staring out my bedroom window at huge snowflakes falling over a silent world. One of Maya’s favorites of the stories I’d made up for her was “The Little Island.” It seemed to me that Leda too craved a refuge. If she was promiscuous then it was a bad tactic for dealing not only with men but the world outside her own skin.
Perhaps she believed this was the way to distract her demons preserve her inner world inviolate, that later, when she was less fetching, there would be other ways. Yet islands are vulnerable to everyone and everything, imperiled havens. The original Leda was a queen of landlocked, inward-looking Sparta yet nonetheless a victim or rape; this one looked outward, like maritime Athens, but she too had been
If I’d taken Leda up on the offer to share her room-filling bed she’d probably have revealed less to me.
It was on that little island in Treviso that she told me the idea for the film she most wanted to make. We
sat beneath a stone pine grassy bank and, shading our eyes, gazed out over the dazzling water. Even with my
sunglasses I couldn’t barely stand so much Italian light.
“The working title’s Possibility. I’ve got it all worked out, more or less. It’ll run for sixty minutes. It’s in six sections, each half as long as the preceding one, so it speeds up the way time does—you know, like when
you’re five a year’s twenty percent of your life. The protagonist is Alexander. We see him behind the credits when he’s thirteen years old and staring dreamily out the window at a snowfall. Light and sentimental French piano music, but a little sardonic too—Poulenc or maybe Satie.“The first section lasts thirty minutes. It’s based on a short story I wrote a couple years ago. Here we see Alexander a decade later. He’s sharing a seedy apartment in with two young men and a young woman. La Vie Bohème. Alexander composes music One of his roommates is a painter as is the young woman. The two are lovers but it’s a difficult relationship as they’re also rivals. The third young man’s a writer and scholar, trying to finish up both a doctoral thesis and a first novel. He’s our anchor, our stage manager, the most uptight of the lot, pessimistic about his roommates’ chances yet envious of their freer spirits. Alex is struggling with two related problems: his concerto and also an on-and-off courtship of a talented young violinist. He works part-time at the Conservatory and is giving her private
lessons. Her father is in oil, in Houston, fabulously rich and by no means a fool. When he learns of the relationship he flies to New York to disapprove in person. It’s a big scene. The young man conceives his concerto as a portrait of his beloved, the expression of his passion for her. Scenes from the roommates’ lives are accompanied by voice-overs from the author reading from his novel, which is based on those lives. His novel’s tragic. All the characters fail; one dies, and the rest live unhappily ever after. In real life, however, it’s exactly the opposite. The two painters make a baby and score a joint show at an upscale Midtown gallery. The writer finishes his dissertation and publishes his novel, which becomes a bestseller. The composer finally goes to bed with the rich girl, completes his concerto, dedicates it to his inamorata. In the last scene, she plays the premiere and it’s a whopping success. I’ll draw the sound track from Berg’s Violin Concerto and parts of Prokofiev’s. You know the Berg?”
“Good. Okay. The second section’s fifteen minutes. Alexander’s thirty and working for a big maritime insurance corporation. He wears a suit and detests his job, though he is good at it. He commutes from one
of those beige suburbs where everything’s nice and nothing’s good. He’s married but that’s as much of a deadening routine as the commute. He works himself up to the decision to quit his job but, on the day he intends to submit his resignation, he gets this big promotion.They’ve picked him to head up the office in Antwerp. In the last shot he’s holding the appointment letter in one hand, his letter of resignation in the other.
For the sound track I’m thinking Bach’s First English Suite.
“The third section will last seven and a half minutes. Alexander’s thirty-five and opening a shop, a bookstore/café. He has a partner. They’re best friends. Then they fall for the same woman, a customer who buys only French books. The partners fall out; the bookstore closes; the woman moves to Paris. For the music but I’m thinking either the waltz movement from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique or some Martinu chamber music. Martinu’s a kind of French Czech.”
“I like Martinu very much.”
“That’s reassuring. Okay, in the fourth section runs three and a half minutes. We see Alexander at forty, looking tough. He’s in a room across from the police headquarters of a middle Eastern country. Through the window he watches men in uniforms come and go. He carefully unpacks a sniper rifle. He has his orders. But he is betrayed and the scene ends in a shoot-out. The music will be the presto from Beethoven’s Opus 130 quartet.
“In the fifth section, ninety seconds, Alex is fifty and eating an elaborate meal in a fancy restaurant with at Viennese décor and menu. He takes notes for his column. The staff eyes him anxiously. He’s a food critic.
He always dines alone. The music will be the from the Das Diner section of Strauss’ Bourgeois Gentilhomme.”
“Very amusing—Viennese, dining but still a little French.”
“The final section will last only thirty seconds. Alex is sixty. We’re in his unlighted study—a heavy desk, wood-paneling, lots of full bookshelves. He has put a record of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. The last movement is playing. For twenty seconds we see only his face; the camera moves in for a close-up. We see all the little lines and pouches. He’s staring at the camera, at us. His expression’s blank, unreadable. Then the camera pulls back and we notice he’s holding a pistol in his lap. He raises it to his temple and shuts his eyes.
“Fin. Fine. Finito. Das Ende.”
She was almost panting.
“Such serious music,” I wanted to say. “What? No blues? No Stones or Beatles?” I very nearly asked, “Why not the Liebestod?”
Before I could say anything, though Leda rattled away, wanting me to respond, but afraid of what I might say, and so hardly giving me a chance. This was to be her secret weapon, I suppose, the tremendous idea she’d disclosed to no one else. “Of course I’ll need to work out lots of details. I just wanted to give you an idea— you know, like what they call a treatment. So, well, what do you think?”
Auden remarked the only mistake one can make in assessing the efforts of young poets is to say something that will stop them from writing. Sincerity comes a distant second, commandment-wise.
“It’s powerful and it’s interesting,” I said. “I like the idea of halving the length of the episodes and the music, of course. It sounds terrific, Leda.”
I was watching her profile. She wasn’t smiling; there was a twitch around her mouth. She looked younger and more exposed than ever, like the map of an uninhabited island. Maybe she wasn’t convinced or perhaps she was just anticipating more and better praise. To the young praise is the only constructive criticism.
She began to shake and wouldn’t look at me. She spoke almost in a whisper. “You know, I’m more like Claude than like you.”
“Meaning that I’ll never accomplish anything, not really.”
“But Leda, you’re just starting out. Your ideas are wonderful; you’re bursting with them. You’ll achieve—”
She got to her feet. “For God’s sake, don’t encourage me.”
I stood too and she turned toward me. I thought of Maya and how much more I had to do than just keep her alive. “Sure, I’ll achieve what I can, yes. I certainly won’t be spoiled by having too much money, and I won’t be distracted by men either, not any more. If I can help it, even failure won’t deter me.” The bitterness of her
tone took me aback. “I’m from pioneer stock, from the prairie. I come from a small town in Michigan, and I’ve been trying to escape it since I stopped being a healthy little animal, since I had something you could call
consciousness. I wanted an interesting life, but what I’ve got is a lonely one. What I’ve built is one of
those lopsided castles children make out of popsicle sticks. That’s the truth.”
“Maybe you ought to go back. Not home, but to school. Life isn’t just a series of adventures.”
She gave a little laugh. “Hah! You know, my parents liked to say I had an artistic temperament. ‘Our Leda’s got an artistic temperament,’ they’d say. That was their way of understanding their not understanding me.
They meant to encourage me, like you. But there’s no such thing as the artistic temperament. The whole
idea’s just a dodge, an excuse for—for what? Let’s call it instability.”
“You are an artist,” I said lamely.
She crossed her arms aggressively “Norah’s going to take your friend for a lot of money. I’m not the reason, but I am the excuse, and I don’t know squat about terrestrial representation.”
We headed back toward the piazza. Leda wouldn’t let me walk her back to her studio but she did laugh, albeit it coldly, and took my hand in both of hers. “I think I’ll go to Germany next. Tried love in Paris; maybe I’ll give death a shot in Berlin.”
So there was the Liebestod, after all.
“Please don’t talk like that, Leda,” I said. She gave me a chaste peck on the cheek then walked away, waving but not looking back.
When did the Lovedeath turn to
the death of
love, the death of love to the love
Was it in the middle of a sentence
or in the silence between breath
I made my way slowly back to the pensione. Claude had phoned from the train station in Venice and left a message for me. He and Maya had had a swell day, and I should meet them at his place around five, then we’d all go out for a big banquet at Il Basilisco.
When I arrived Maya was alone on the terrace. She ran to me, threw herself into my arms. “They’ve been just yelling at each other,” she exclaimed into my chest and broke into tears.
Inside, Norah screamed something. A door slammed. Claude swore.
There was no banquet at Il Basilisco.
I made the flight reservations that night and loaded up our rented Fiat in the morning. As Maya absolutely
refused to come with me, I left her with Signora Muscato while I went to say farewell to Claude. He looked
drawn and he needed a shave. “Awful sorry, old man,” he said as lightly as if we were still freshmen. “Not that I didn’t see it coming. Look, give me a call when you get home. Okay? And please give my love to Maya.”
Two hours later my daughter and I boarded a plane at Venice’s airport which is named for Marco Polo, another restless spirit.
Six months later Claude phoned from the house he’d just bought in Pennington, New Jersey. The divorce from Norah was a done deal, and as expensive as the first one. “I’m seeing somebody,” he said, “a terrific woman, a painter.” He’d met her at Sotheby’s, where she had a day job. I asked if he had any news about Leda.
“As a matter of fact, I do. She sent me a letter. It followed me from Treviso but took a couple of months to find me. Did you know she went off to Germany right after you left? Well, apparently she had some sort of major breakdown in Berlin.The hospital called the embassy and they called her parents who came over and took her back home. Said she was feeling so much better and planning to leave soon, because there was still so much she wanted to do. Her plan was to finish up at NYU and then she thought she might try Mexico, because of her father. Said something about making a documentary about peyote-eaters or the
people who smuggle stolen American cars. But, to be honest, I’ve got my doubts. Her handwriting looked pretty
weird. Look, gotta go. Love to Maya.”
I found this piece near the top of the second of Fein’s thick files for the year 1973. It was among the last things he wrote during that exceptionally productive year; it almost certainly dates from late December. Fein did not take the trouble to type up a fair copy yet the text shows numerous corrections. The most noteworthy of these is the curious interpolation of four lines of verse. I only appreciated its significance, and that of Fein’s allusion to Wagner’s Tristan, because in the first file for 1973 I discovered a poem dated February 13; that is, around the time that his marriage ended. Here is the complete text of this uncharacteristically revealing and intimate poem:
The still bedroom was dimmed by
Though they were outside time it
it should be a November
when exertion brought its own
He was an expiring salmon
last erg of energy in the sweet
of his birth; wave on wave
then dropped until he plumbed
matrix of all metaphor, perishing
with limbs of lead into the dusky
only to renew the compulsive
of recurrence heralded by
framed by Klimt, explicated by
Was it the love of death,
the death of love, or merely one
soul lost in the release of spirit,
the love that feels like death?
Memory shuffles delight up with
When did the Lovedeath turn to
the death of
love, the death of love to the love
Was it in the middle of a sentence
or in the silence between breath
Fein was not given to writing lyrical poems or, for that matter, memoirs. He did not keep a journal, but it is clear that his brief sojourn in Treviso moved him to write about it months later, probably just after he received the phone call he mentions from Claude Kaplan. I think this was owing not only to the poignant visit with his quondam idol and freshman roommate and his encounter with the unstable Leda Steinberg-Barrantes, but also because of where Fein found himself in his own life. Like Claude, he had inherited money and gone through the dissolution of a marriage. Like Leda, he had cultural ambitions he feared might exceed his talent and self-discipline.
Another reason why Fein might have memorialized the visit to Treviso is that those days came to feel like a touchstone for the end of an era. The year 1973 was a significant one for America. Fein himself thought of it as a transitional moment, the real end of the Sixties. In his opinion, spiritually speaking that decade began with the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963 and ended with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam—along with the eruption of the Women’s Liberation Movement, the Arab oil embargo, and the post-war inflation, all of which came in 1973. The year was no less a turning-point for Fein personally. It began with the virtually simultaneous publication of his first book and the end of his marriage, making him at once an author and a single parent. Maya Fein tells me she has retained a few memories of that trip in June of her eighth year.
She remembers nothing of their time in Rome but does recall the long, interrupted drive to Treviso, also her day in Venice, which she describes as “hot but thrilling.” Claude Kaplan was a very good companion for a child, apparently, at least for a few hours. “He bought me a leather purse—my first handbag—and a straw hat I thought quite stylish.” But what she recollects most vividly is the explosive scene on their return to Treviso. Her own parents, Maya told me, had done all they could to shield her from their arguments, to mitigate the tension in the household; Norah and Claude Kaplan had no such scruples. She describes their fight in these terms: “It was terrifying and operatic. I felt I was seeing a grotesque version of my own parents, of all parents. The fight was about that hippie girl who’d been at dinner.” Evidently, whatever scabs had formed over Maya’s wounds were ripped off in seconds.
Claude Kaplan’s third marriage proved more enduring than the first two. It seems to have had a settling effect on him. After buying the Pennington house, he invested what remained of his inheritance in a six-story building in SoHo. With the rental income he lived the life of a gentleman of leisure in the New Jersey horse country. His wife had a studio and two cats, which seemed to content her. They had no children. Kaplan is reputed to have amassed one of the country’s outstanding collections of repeating pocket watches. He sold his building during the first of Manhattan’s gentrification booms after which he and his wife traveled widely. They moved to Palm Beach in 1995, where he died in 2003.
The only facts I have been able to determine about Leda Steinberg-Barrantes are that she returned to New York University in 1975, suffered another breakdown, failed to complete her degree, and died in 1982, in
Michigan. The brief obituary gives no cause of death.